Ports of Call: Homeworlds

It’s early March and I’ve written a book this year. An entire book, start to finish. This is a big accomplishment for me because it’s my first book. It’s 40,000 words strong and was written in six weeks.

How It Happened

On January 10th, I was offered the opportunity to write a supplement for the game Bulldogs! by Galileo Games. The book is called Ports of Call: Homeworlds and was a stretch goal from the Kickstarter last year to update Bulldogs! to Fate Core. The assignment was to write 40,000 words covering as many homeworlds for alien species in the Bulldogs! universe as I could fit. The biggest challenge was the timetable – Jeremy Morgan, my editor and primary point of contact, wanted it done by the end of February.

Jeremy really is the person I have to thank for this opportunity. We’ve met briefly in person a few times but mostly I know him from Twitter – we follow many of the same people and are part of many of the same conversations. Last year he put out a call for back up writers in case scheduling conflicts came up with the writers he’d already tapped. I submitted my name and Jeremy added me to his list. That second week of January, I heard he wanted me for a gig. At the time I was suffering from a terrible head cold and agreed almost immediately, despite being under the influence of Day- and/or NyQuil. (Pro tip: when you’re married, check with your spouse before you agree to do a 40,000 word book in six weeks.)

The business portion of the project – agreeing to a rate, signing the contract, getting author materials, etc. – took a while to get running so I lost nearly two weeks before I could start writing. Once I had all that sorted, though, I took a long look at what needed to happen and worked it out with Jeremy and Brennan that I’d need another week. My new deadline was March 7th. Spoiler alert: I made my deadline.

Nuts and Bolts

My pace needed to be an average of 1,000 words a day. That’s an ambitious goal for someone who has a day job, is married, and active in local communities. I ran the X-Wing store championship for my local store in February. I brewed two batches of beer in the time I wrote this book. I even managed to play a game for the She’s a Super Geek podcast.

The first step was to familiarize myself with the source material. I’d read Bulldogs! before but it had been a while and I’d never played a campaign. Jeremy sent me a PDF of the Fate Core version and manuscripts for other sources I’d need. I read them all multiple times, making mental notes about what each species is like and different themes I can play with for their ports. This I was able to accomplish while other business details were being attended to; it happened in fits and starts because I was sick early in the process and we had some miscommunication along the way, probably because I wasn’t asking the right questions.

Because I’m a bit of an organizational nut, I love to use Scrivener. My first scrivening for PoC: Homeworlds was a list of each species with the homeworld and singular, plural, and adjectival forms of the species name. This would be my most common reference note as I wrote. There are about fifty species in the materials Brennan sent me. Some of those will have homeworlds represented in other books, some don’t have homeworlds, and some don’t have homeworlds suitable for visitation. That brought my total list of ports down to 36, something of a perfect number. I aimed for each port to land between 1,100 and 1,200 words. Some were more and some were less.

Then I set about creating my port template with spaces for the port name, planet of origin, climate, port description, three aspects, description of locals, and three prominent NPCs. My template was properly formatted with the header and aspect tags where necessary. The template was based off the manuscript for another Ports of Call book by Filamena Young. (Big help!)

Writing the ports was surprisingly easy. I broke it down into manageable chunks, with the goal of a port a day. That worked out to be a bit more than a thousand a day, so I banked a couple days off in the process. They were much needed.

I knew that if I tried to create an outline of 36 unique, original port ideas all at once that I’d never get it done. So instead I used a technique I’m calling a “rolling outline” where I brainstormed four port ideas and then each day I wrote a port, I’d also brainstorm a new port idea. The intent was to keep three or four port ideas in the list so I always had something to work with the next day. This worked really well! Since the ports are small-ish and mostly self-contained, I was able to let each idea percolate in my head for a few days before writing it. This also broke the brain load of ideation into small chunks. When I stuck to this pattern, I was just zipping along. Late in the game I finished a port and went to see what was next in my outline to find out I hadn’t generated any new ideas. That was panic inducing.

From there on, it was really just about the discipline of sitting and writing every night. That’s not an easy thing to do and I didn’t always want to but I did it. My wife deserves major recognition and thanks. She really stepped up to help me by planning meals, cooking, and packing my lunches. These are things I typically do around the house but on such a short deadline, it just wasn’t feasible. Ports of Call: Homeworlds wouldn’t have happened (at least not as quickly as it happened) without all of her support and hard work.

What Can We Expect in Ports of Call: Homeworlds?

The ports in the book are pretty diverse. There’s a port on an authoritarian world that is only place aliens are allowed to visit. All interstellar commerce on that planet occurs there, and is primarily concerned with contracting out the services of exceptional individuals.

Another port is a low-gravity world with enormous big game animals. Think T-Rex size. The port has a number of safari companies that will take you out to bag the big one. It’s also one of the prime destinations for extreme sports fanatics.

I wrote about a space elevator, an enormous space station, a hollowed-out asteroid with an enormous sentient mainframe, and a place where biomechanical ships are built/grown. There’s Shakespearean drama (in spaaaace!), assassin’s guilds, environmentalist protesters, Pangalactic Corporations everywhere, and even a port with mysterious werewolves.

As a Bulldog coming to one of these ports you’ll be embroiled in murder mysteries, plans for bloody vengeance, local politics (both governmental and criminal), thrilling races, daring heists, and more. You’ll be able to explore crumbling empires, failing businesses, paradise resorts, and expanding kingdoms.

The hardest port to write was the philosopher’s enclave run by hive-minded insects. My favorite is probably the port that is basically a Buddhist temple from a Shaw Bros. flick. The funniest, I hope, is the port where a species with a terrifying appearance is trying to change galactic opinion about them and have built a hilariously mismanaged tourist trap. Because it doesn’t matter how good the skiing is if the entire place is crawling with giant spiders asking if they can help you.

The species with homeworlds represented in Ports of Call: Homeworlds are Behemothians, Chan Guls, Dolomé, Eegop, Endevians, Forrszp, Gabradeen, Guloorpans, Hacragorkans, Han-To-No-Gon-La, Hikiyans, Hoodoosuns, Isilins, Keero, Ken Reeg, Lachkessen, Lassieans, Lutrani, Madribel, Mgrummen, Myriasoma, Nukimen, Ophrenics, Rangoons, Ryjyllians, Sabines, Septercians, Sishi’ik, Skuras, Telosians, Terrizans, Tetsuashans, Thalds, Undines, Vilichlopans, and Zevallia.

You will not find the Arsubarans, Saldrallans, or Templari here because they’re going to be in other books.

 Write and Live Responsibly

Coinciding with this unprecedented level of creative output, I decided that I’m kind of tired of being fat and out of shape. A gym just opened in my office building so I joined that and have been exercising every work day. Started slow because I wanted to be successful, so once I got in the habit of hitting the gym after a couple weeks I also started counting calories and restricting my diet.

The first few weeks of going to the gym was great. I was hitting my word count every day, my mood improved, and I had greater energy even though I wasn’t seeing any weight loss. Once I restricted my diet, that all changed. My energy levels and mood dropped precipitously but I lost twelve pounds in two weeks. The thing is, I couldn’t write. I found myself taking longer to write a port in the evening. What had been taking two or three hours was stretching into five. That’s on the days I was able to even muster the mental fortitude to sit down and do it. So while I was doing great on the weight loss, literally everything else crashed.

In order to finish the book, I stopped dieting the last week. I was behind schedule by about five thousand words and needed to get it done. Breakfast and lunch were still healthy, but dinners were larger and heavier than I’d been doing. Upping my calorie intake improved my energy levels and I was able to knock out the words I needed to

I was surprised at how much my diet affected my writing process. It makes sense – my brain is the source of my creativity and it’s an organ that needs energy as much as anything else. The experience really highlighted for me how terrible the starving artist trope is. I already understood that it promotes a toxic abuse of creatives by devaluing their work or by encouraging society to actively mistreat artists but I never understood before how hard it is to be creative when you are starving. And my starving wasn’t even financially motivated; I didn’t have the added stress of not knowing if I could pay rent. (My wife and I are lucky enough to be fairly financially stable with our joint income.)

How I Got Here

Getting away from the story and process of writing this book, I want to talk about “making it” in the hobby, insofar as I have had some success.

The question I’ve asked myself a number of times over the past few months is: “How did I get a book deal?” I’ve given it a lot of thought and it all comes down to this: I know people, they know me, and I’ve worked up the courage to put myself out there. None of it was easy and it all started by a chance introduction.

Over the past eight years I’ve been developing connections in the RPG community. I’m on friendly terms with a number of designers, writers, and editors. Really, that’s the key: over the course of years, I have gotten to know and get on good terms with people in the game design community.

I’m not joking or being hyperbolic about the time frame, either. After discovering Spirit of the Century in 2008, I started following Fred Hicks and Rob Donoghue on Twitter. I now freelance for them (two projects down, and the biggest so far just ramping up).

In 2010 I met Ron Edwards, who did a lot to convince me that I could write my own games. We haven’t spoken for a while but it’s impossible to be a gamer and not speak to Ron without him picking your brain about what you want in a game, which inevitably leads to brainstorming game design.

But where it really started, where I can directly trace the connections I’ve made and the success I’ve had is GenCon 2011. My friend Tim introduced me to some old friends of his – Clark and Amanda Valentine, who had just been part of the announcement for Marvel Heroic. Because of that, I started following Cam Banks and interacting with him on Twitter. In 2012 I bought a one-day pass to C2E2 so I could get a physical copy of Marvel Heroic and have it signed by Cam; we chatted at the booth and it ended up that I submitted a writing test for the Age of Apocalypse supplements. At GenCon I ran a ton of the official Marvel Heroic games.  I was laid off at the same time (literally the day before GenCon) so I wrote a first draft of Heroes Fall (which was then called Grim World).

In 2013, Margaret Weis Productions lost the Marvel license but picked up Firefly. I volunteered to GM for them and Mark Diaz Truman asked me if I would be interested in writing for Firefly as we talked about the game. Over the next two years, I worked on five books for Firefly.

In 2014 I went out on a limb and submitted for the Evil Hat writer’s search. They liked what I wrote and I came on to write Three Rocketeers. That went well, so in 2015 they added me to the Kaiju Incorporated RPG team as a system developer and Fate of Cthulhu as the lead designer.

Throughout this whole time I’ve been getting to know more and more people in the community, building connections and friendships. I’m becoming more visible in the community, for better or worse. For me, at least, it means that when Jeremy needed someone to write an entire book in six weeks I seemed like a reasonable candidate.

So if you want to get into a community, that’s the only path I know and can recommend: meet people, make friends, make things, contribute, and put yourself out there. It’s work, dammit, and hard work, at that. But you’re never going to get opportunities without the legwork.

About PK

PK Sullivan is a game designer and writer living in Chicago.

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